One recent afternoon I was sitting at a bar in downtown Singapore, eyeing a bottle suspiciously. I was there to meet Frank Shen and Simon Zhao, cofounders of Compendium, one of several new gin distilleries that have opened in the city. All of them are creating Southeast Asian twists on gin, but none takes it quite as far as Shen and Zhao. By Simon Willis
In front of me was a gin called Rojak, named after a kind of chopped salad eaten across Malaysia, Singapore, and Indonesia that can contain anything from pineapple and bean sprouts to deep-fried tofu and shrimp paste. I took a sip, half-expecting the umami whack of fermented crustaceans. But happily, Shen and Zhao are not literalists. The only ingredient they have taken from the recipe is the rojak flower itself, the petals of which are often sprinkled over the salad. In their gin, the warm, earthy element masks the medicinal tang of juniper, the spirit’s main botanical.
Craft Gin is taking over Singapore and how
Until 2018, Singapore had no distilleries of its own. This is surprising for two reasons. First, in the past decade, the city has become a destination for drinkers. Six of its bars are on Perrier’s list of the world’s top 50—more than any other city. One of them, Atlas, is a gin specialist with more than 1,300 varieties on its menu. Second, many of the most common botanicals used to flavour gin are native to Southeast Asia, including licorice, coriander, and cassia bark.
Singapore’s gin distilling scene was started by four expatriates — two Brits, one Australian, and a Dutchman. One night back in 2017 they were drinking at Atlas and noticed that not a single bottle of gin was local. Looking for a sideline to their office jobs, they decided to make their own.
They chose the name Tanglin, after the upscale neighbourhood that was once the centre of the city’s spice trade. I visited the distillery for a tour and tasting with Charlie van Eeden, the Dutch cofounder, and Bradley Young, a bearded Australian who runs the day-to-day operations. In one corner was a stainless-steel contraption covered in valves and knobs and gauges that looked like a lunar capsule from the early days of space exploration. This is where strong botanicals like juniper and cassia are distilled in pure ethanol before passing through a series of flavour baskets containing softer aromatics like orange peel.
In many ways Tanglin’s philosophy is similar to Compendium’s. “We emphasise Chinese, Malay, and Indian flavours to reflect Singapore’s cuisine,” Young said as he led me to a table of botanicals that included pepper from Kampot, Cambodia, and dried mango powder, or amchoor. The results, however, are more traditional than Compendium’s concoction. Their signature drink, Orchid Gin, is named after Singapore’s national flower and is flavoured with orchid, which lends its subtly sweet vanilla scent to a classic, juniper-rich London dry.
Other distilleries have followed Tanglin’s lead and adopted the trend of terroir. Brass Lion Distillery, which opened a month after Tanglin in 2018, emphasises citrus fruits, such as calamansi, a kind of small, sweet lime. “It’s really because of the weather here,” explained Satish Vaswani, Brass Lion’s head distiller, when I visited for a tasting. “It’s so hot in Singapore that we wanted something light.”
Of all the distilleries in Singapore, Brass Lion brings you closest to the craft itself. Vaswani led me around its renovated industrial building, which dates back to the 1950s, near Singapore’s port. The gleaming copper still on the ground floor is surrounded by giant tubs of botanicals and a bottling machine. Upstairs is a bar for tasting sessions and a “gin school,” a small room containing 10 miniature stills where Vaswani leads weekend classes in gin making.
In the bar, Vaswani laid out a flight of gins for me to try, all of which have Brass Lion Singapore dry gin as their base. The most unusual is called Butterfly Pea Gin, after a local plant with a deep-blue flower. In Singapore, the butterfly pea is traditionally used by Peranakans, who descend from 15th-century Chinese settlers, for dishes like “kueh salat,” sweet rice cakes topped with coconut custard. At Brass Lion, Vaswani soaks the flowers in Singapore dry gin to extract the colour. Then he infuses a hint of lavender, which adds a light floral note. When you mix the gin with tonic water, the acid in the tonic changes the pH, turning the drink from blue to a pleasingly summery shade of pink.
The one flavour that no distillery has yet touched is Singapore’s most distinctive and divisive: durian. This large spiky green fruit is highly prized — a fact that baffles visitors, owing to the putrid smell of its yellow flesh. But according to Jesse Vida, the head bartender at Atlas, it’s only a matter of time. “It doesn’t exist yet,” he said, “but it’s definitely gonna happen.”
This story first appeared on www.travelandleisure.com
(Main and Feature Image Credit: Lauryn Ishak)